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The UN Does Not Have an Performance Management Problem

Updated: Apr 26

As a new performance management cycle starts for many of you across the UN system, this month’s spotlight is on drivers of strong performance for individuals, managers, teams, and ultimately their organizations. There is a common perception that there is a performance management problem at the UN. The United Nations' performance management system has suffered from issues of credibility and effectiveness, and most management reforms have put a lot of effort into revising the UN's performance management policies, tools and procedures. But a growing body of research is highlighting that it’s our individual behaviors that have the greatest impact on performance, not the systems we use.

“Better management of performance required a more dynamic view that goes beyond simple direct methods of task performance measurement and resultant performance evaluation tools toward the more “human side” of performance management methods.” - Asif, A., & Rathore, K., Behavioral Drivers of Performance in Public-Sector Organizations, (2021)

This focus on behaviors is also evident in how the Secretary-General has positioned performance management in the UN's most recent management reforms.

"The new performance management approach at the United Nations Secretariat is firmly anchored in the Secretary-General’s (SG) vision to “move to a culture that is focused more on results than on processes, better manages administrative and mandate delivery risks, values innovation, and demonstrates a higher tolerance for honest mistakes and a greater readiness to take prompt corrective action. The SG also urged that “we must re-establish trust at all levels and create a culture of empowerment and accountability, ensuring that leaders, managers and staff have the wherewithal to achieve, where, when and how needed". - Secretary-General's Report "Shifting the management paradigm in the United Nations", 2017 (A/72/492)

This month's spotlight provides managers with concrete actions and tools (incl. a downloadable infographic) for behavioral change to improve team performance. The focus is team culture. This post will discuss how you as managers and leaders (at any level) can strengthen your team’s culture by ensuring that the following three mutually reinforcing conditions for success are in place:  

  1. Strong team accountability for performance issues

  2. Cultivation of a growth mindset that promotes development, and continuous improvement by cultivating a growth mindset

  3. A facilitative leadership approach that enables engagement & motivation.

It's your team's culture

I have spent the majority of my UN career counseling and training staff and managers on performance issues. My personal experience facilitating conversations with staff and managers across the UN System is that performance management is working just fine for most people. Teams know what to do, they have the expertise, resources, and support to do it. Staff are self-accountable and engaged, managers prioritize their team above all else, and senior leadership consistently provides the vision and sets the tone for the culture.


Sure, things aren’t always perfect - they have their fair share of problems and limitations, but they learn from their mistakes, keep things moving, and most importantly, they do not allow those problems to define their overall narrative, experience, or effectiveness.


On the other side of the coin, there are teams where things aren’t working out quite as well.  Staff and managers alike are frustrated because of issues stemming from lack of accountability, weak leadership, toxic work environments, ineffective feedback, or lack of engagement and motivation among others.

So, what’s the difference between these two narratives?  To be honest, sometimes it’s just luck. You find yourself in the right place, at the right time, with the right people, and your culture just works. But culture shouldn’t happen by accident.  Through collaborative and intentional efforts teams can shape their culture (and thus overall experience), so that it reflects their shared values and purpose.

Managers are ultimately responsible for their team’s culture, but they are not the only ones who influence it, everyone’s behavior on the team contributes to the environment - for better or worse - so it is essential that are included part of the collective solution because you cannot, and should not, do it alone.


But before you bring this idea to your team, first think about whether you are ready to lead this initiative and reflect on those things that you are in your control – your own behaviors and your leadership style.

Performance Management: Changing your Behaviors so Your Team Behaves

While it is true that you are ultimately responsible for your teams’ culture and that individual behaviors inform the culture, it is important to understand that it is seldom possible to change the behaviors, feelings, or emotions of others.  You can however, together with your team, define what behaviors are acceptable and hold everyone accountable for upholding the standards that you and your team identified as being important.


Remember that there is perhaps no greater influence on your team’s culture than the example that you as a manager set through your own behaviors.  The best way to do this is to show them that you prioritize and take performance management seriously by fulfilling your own performance management responsibilities.

“Management behavior can have an impact on the performance of employees and organization, and properly addressing employee performance issues will require good management behavior” - Asif, A., & Rathore, K., Behavioral Drivers of Performance in Public-Sector Organizations, (2021)

This emphasis on ‘managers doing their job’ is just an echo of what rebuttal panels, tribunals, and auditors have observed – that we are sometimes falling short of those expectations.  The result?  Negative ratings being reversed by rebuttal panels, or financial penalties awarded to the underperforming staff member because we are not following our own rules.


This leads many well intentioned managers to grow disillusioned by the system and contributes to the false narrative that there is nothing you can do about underperformance.  As a result, some UN managers ignore the underperformance or simply adopt the strategy of assigning a positive evaluation so the individual can find another job and move on.  These behaviors and the misapplication of the system (justified or not) undermines its effectiveness and credibility. Some staff, in turn, seek to exploit manager's reluctance to do the work to address underperformance by threatening or engaging in retaliation through complaints against the manager. All this has long been highlighted in analyses of the UN's administrative justice system.

“Managers fear rebuttals, complaints/investigation leading to under reporting of poor performance” - Lessons learned from the jurisprudence of the system of administration of justice: a guide for managers (26 February 2016)

While this has become part of UN culture, you can also change that culture in your team by demonstrating, through your behaviors, that you are committed to the betterment of the team and that you will not be dissuaded in your commitment to accountability. 

Mindshift from Managing Individuals to Managing Teams

Many managers tackle performance issues on a case-by-case basis, working on finding individual solutions to problems when they arise.  While this should certainly continue, I would like you to consider the value of making the shift from managing individuals to managing the team.  The thinking here is that instead of fighting individual fires, you cultivate a team culture where issues are kept to a minimum, and that when they do arise that they are successfully resolved.  It’s also easier and less work for the managers. Self-driving teams require less of the managers’ energy.


While managers should act as catalysts for inclusion, trust and a supportive and enabling environment for the team, it’s the collective contribution of every individual that informs the culture. To get a culture that the you as the manager (and your team) want, you should empower and enable others on the team—even those with no formal authority—to join/participate in the co-creation and shaping of the culture. It’s this collective contribution that will make a real impact on the culture, not the managers alone.

Multiple academic studies of staff performance in public sector organizations have demonstrated that:

"Empowerment of employees has indirect effects upon job attitudes such as innovativeness and job satisfaction and also upon employee dispositional characteristics, including trust, self-esteem, and affective commitment, all of which in turn have a positive influence on employee performance." - Asif, A., & Rathore, K., Behavioral Drivers of Performance in Public-Sector Organizations, (2021)

But how do you do this? In discussing this with managers in the past, I've heard concerns about this approach.

"I always ask my supervisees for their input and opinions, but now I’m being asked to invite them to ‘co-create’. Considering the personalities on my team this sounds like a recipe for chaos." - Quote from a UN manager.

I would like you to consider exploring and applying a facilitative leadership style. In the infographic below, which you can download, I have four concrete tools you can try in your team to start applying facilitative leadership.


Empowering your Staff through Facilitative Leadership

Facilitative leadership is an approach that prioritizes inclusive and empowering environments through team collaboration. Leadership skills under this paradigm focus on facilitating open dialogue and shared decision-making. In lined with the Chief Executives Board for Coordination's (CEB) Senior Leadership Commitments for the Future of Work in the United Nations System, facilitative leadership involves enabling rather than instructing staff.


Facilitative leaders focus on team performance, and prioritize it’s success over their own, they also  influence and inspire (not force) changes among the people they lead, starting by modelling the right behaviors. Your colleagues at the UN represent the best and the brightest from across the world.  You hired them for their experience and technical skills, they know how to do their jobs, and they know what they signed up for.  Trust them to do the job they were hired to do.

Inclusion does not mean that everyone will get what they want.  But their voices will be heard, and input and opinions considered.  We’re not talking about a radical shift of delegation or authority.  As a leader, it’s your responsibility to make the final judgment call on a number of decisions. Your team needs to know that you are confident in this responsibility, but also that you’re flexible in approach and open to their feedback.


Inclusive leadership and co-creation does not mean a free for all, we want to strengthen roles and responsibilities not create ambiguity around them.  We also want to avoid an over-consultative process where things stall, and decisions never get made.  Acknowledge non-negotiables (things not in our control), and review things that are in our control.

Culture change does not happen overnight and it’s not easy. Some staff may not have the impetus to do it, while others might need some time to fully understand the concept before they feel safe embarking on that journey.  Remember that some people may feel threatened by change.  For all these reasons, you will want to take a step-by-step approach to see what works best with your team and in your context, while letting them get used to the change.

Initiating real performance management in your team and the UN

There are four options for you to start practicing facilitative leadership and collectively build a team culture that everyone wants:

  1. Co-creation of a team workplan

  2. Accountability agreements

  3. Social contracts

  4. Culture conversations

Click on the image to download a PDF of the infographic

I myself have used with teams and I've seen them work. Clicking on the image to the right will give you a printable pdf version of the graphic so you can find out more about each approach and consider what might work best for your team context. Regardless of what level you are or how big or small your team is, you have the power to shape its culture. I encourage you to take the first step.

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